Mindfulness ‘what’ skills teach us what to do to become more mindful. These skills will help you learn how to observe without judgement or attachment, describe your experience (both internal and external) just as it is, and participate fully in the present moment without hesitation.
There are three sets of ‘what’ skills:
1. Notice what is present
Look at the following picture and notice your reaction to it:
What did you notice? Did it make you think or feel a certain way? Perhaps you thought that the picture was ‘scary’ or ‘dark’ and felt uneasy as a result. This activity shows us how quick the mind is to assess, judge and assign labels to things.
The first ‘what’ skill teaches us not to do this straight away – instead we learn how to notice our experience in the present moment, without adding meaning, pushing away discomfort or becoming attached. The aim is simply for you to attend to and observe your surrounding environment, thoughts, emotions, and ways of behaving.
To do this, you’ll need to take a mental ‘step back’ from situations, be curious (rather than fearful) about your experience and avoid assigning labels. This can be called
‘wordless watching’. To do this, we use our five senses (sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste).
Here are some examples of how you can ‘notice what is present’:
- Start by purposefully focussing your attention on just one thing in the present moment (e.g., an object, emotion, sound etc.), without reacting to it. Each time your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the present moment.
- Choose an activity to do and mindfully observe your experience as you engage with it (e.g., sit outside and feel the sensations on your skin – pay attention to the ground beneath your feet, your clothes, and the air on your skin). Start by focussing on one of the five senses, and slowly expand your attention to include the other senses
- Simply watch your thoughts for two minutes, without judgment, and write them down on a piece of paper. You don’t need to write the whole thought, just a word or two that summarises it. Try and see your thoughts coming and going, like birds flying across the sky. Practice watching your thoughts come and go without trying to control them
- Observe any emotions or feelings you are experiencing, including any areas of comfort, discomfort, tension and so on. Notice where they are located and how they feel in your body. Notice if the physical sensation moves or changes. If it had a size, shape, colour, or texture, what would it be?
- As you focus on an emotion, try to stay in the present moment, even when it’s uncomfortable. Notice the discomfort, sit with it, and don’t try to push it away or distract yourself from it. If you have an urge to act, try to explore this too, without taking action. Be curious about your experience.
You might be wondering how the simple skill of noticing can help with your anger. As you become more mindful of your experiences, thoughts, and emotions, you will gain important insight into the specific cues, triggers and early warning signs that alert you to anger. If you understand these things, you are in a better position to make changes that interrupt the anger cycle we learned about in Week 1. Let’s learn from Sarah’s experience as an example.
Through her mindful observations, Sarah notices that she becomes tense and prone to anger in certain situations (e.g., when she interacts with her boss, discusses finances with her partner, or feels unheard and criticised) but not others. She also notices that she carries a lot of tension in her neck and shoulders. Sarah identifies that her warning signs for anger are a clenched jaw, sweaty palms, and inability to focus on anything but the problem. She also knows that minor irritations can build up for her over the course of the day.
Sarah uses this information to her advantage by mitigating or preparing ahead for situations where she knows she is more vulnerable to anger. Simply observing allows Sarah to learn that she can feel her anger without acting on it. Sarah also works on relaxation techniques to reduce her baseline level of muscle tension. Sarah knows that her early warning signs are a cue for her to implement other strategies. Using these strategies means that Sarah’s anger doesn’t rise to extreme and overwhelming levels, which leaves her feeling more in control.
2. Add words to your observations
The second ‘what’ skill teaches us to describe what we observe by adding words to the experience. It is important to select objective and non-judgemental (neutral) descriptive words, avoid labels and steer clear of highly emotional language here.
For example, take the picture we saw above. When asked to describe this picture, many people would say things like “it’s an evil bear”, “the bear is angry” or “the bear is about to attack”. However, these statements contain the types of judgements we are trying to avoid. We don’t know for sure if the bear is evil, angry, or about to attack, these are just assumptions that we can’t actually confirm.
Instead, we can assign neutral and objective descriptions like “the bear is pink”, “the bear has teeth” and “there is a red heart on its chest”. This allows us to gain distance from our mind’s assumptions, which are sometimes true, but more often biased. This skill requires us to avoid taking our thoughts and emotions as fact.
As a general rule, if you can’t experience it through one of your senses, you can’t describe it. As with the bear example, we can’t observe or describe someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or intentions or the meaning of a situation.
Here are some examples of how you can ‘add words to your observations’:
- Practice by describing objects in detail, using only factual language. Pick any object at home, work/school or outdoors (e.g., ornaments, leaves, food items). For example, to describe an apple, you might use words like ‘green’, ‘shiny’, ‘symmetrical’, and so on. Steer clear of judgemental words, like ‘ugly’, ‘tasty’, or ‘boring’.
- Observe your internal experience (thoughts, emotions, sensations, and urges) and add words to what you notice. For example, “I notice an urge to do something else”, “I notice my chest is tight”, “I notice the feeling of anxiety coming on”, “I notice I’m having an anxious thought”. Again, avoid judgements or assumptions, which usually involve words like “good/bad”, “right/wrong”, “should/shouldn’t” etc.
- Observe and describe the sounds around you. Describe their volume, pitch, depth, quality, and distance from you (e.g., an ambulance sound on a street near you might be described as loud, high pitched, whirring, continuous, and nearby). Steer clear of assigning meaning or judgements (e.g., with the ambulance example, avoid describing the sound as ‘an ambulance’, ‘emergency’, ‘bad or worrying’ etc.
- When thinking about a situation, sort out what is fact and remove your assumptions, interpretations, and opinions. To help you do this, write about the situation from the perspective of a video recorder. Describe only things that a video recorder can capture (e.g., the environment, actions, people present, words spoken). For example, the boss approached me in the office and asked me a question, I startled a bit and did not verbally respond, the boss raised his eyebrows and said, “can you please fix it”, before leaving the office. Notice how we avoided things like “it was unfair”, “he accused me”, “he was unhappy”, “he always picks on me” etc.
As we learned in Week 1, inaccurate judgements, assumptions, and labels are a big part of what keeps anger going. The skill of describing helps us to remove these things, as well as accurately name our emotions, communicate more effectively, and gain insight into the way anger shows up for us. Let’s meet Sarah again.
Sarah begins to remove judgemental language and as she describes her internal and external experiences. For example, when Sarah’s boss reminds her of a deadline, Sarah notices herself starting to get angry. She describes her thoughts (e.g., “I’m noticing a judgemental thought”) and physical sensations (e.g., “I can feel my face getting hot”). She also describes the situation objectively (e.g., “my boss just reminded me of a deadline”), instead of making judgements (e.g., “my boss is unfair, he shouldn’t do this”) or assumptions (e.g., “he thinks I’m working too slowly”).
As a result, Sarah’s anger did not reach extreme levels. She still felt mildly irritated, but her emotions remained manageable. She was able to separate from her mind’s judgments, continue to focus on her work, and meet the deadline. Afterwards, Sarah calmly approached her boss and asked him if he had any concerns about her work. Sarah was surprised when her boss told her he has no concerns and even complimented her efforts. It turned out he was stressed and had been reminding everyone about deadlines that day.
3. Jump in and have a go
The final ‘what’ skill teaches us to jump into and participate fully in activities. This is important, as it allows us to be more effective and gain a greater sense of enjoyment in life. The key here is to immerse yourself, go with the flow and engage completely in what you are doing.
For example, say you had a big argument with a friend. The following evening, you go out for dinner with your partner. However, you are still angry about the argument with your friend and continue to have thoughts about the unfairness of the situation. Although you are physically with your partner at dinner, your mind is elsewhere and you’re unable to enjoy the meal. Your partner also notices you are ‘absent’, which damages the connection between you.
In the above example, immersing yourself and participating in the moment would have been beneficial in many ways. It would have allowed you to jump out of your head and be more engaged in the world around you. You would have been free to have more meaningful conversations with your partner, savour the meal, and be more aware of the atmosphere and experience as a whole. It is only when we are present that we can act skilfully.
Here are some examples of how you can practice ‘jumping in and having a go’:
- Take an activity you do regularly and use this to practice being fully present and engaged with what you’re doing. For example, you might like to use brushing your teeth each day or doing the dishes as a way to be mindful and practice the skill of participation
- Try a new activity and immerse yourself in the experience (e.g., learn a language, take a yoga class). Be aware of the experience, both internally and externally, and repeatedly bring your attention back to what you’re doing whenever your mind wanders
- Set aside time to throw yourself into an activity or hobby you enjoy (e.g., colouring in, dancing to music, playing an instrument or sport). Use this time to be fully engaged in what you’re doing and avoid multitasking
- Do something repeatedly and focus on ‘becoming one’ with the activity (e.g., breathing exercises, mindfully describing an object, a relaxation exercise or mindful movement). Gently guide your focus back to the activity whenever you become distracted
- When you’re having a conversation, focus your attention fully on what the other person is saying and doing. Take note of what they’re telling you, their tone, body language, and posture. Throw yourself into the conversation and examine their reaction to your responses. Be curious.
Problems with anger can detract significantly from a person’s quality of life. As you’re probably aware, anger and the emotions that follow (e.g., resentment, guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness etc.) often linger. It can be hard to focus on other things, let alone perform well or gain enjoyment from them, when we are seething underneath. Learning to jump in and participate fully in activities can free us to enjoy the moment.
Sarah often held on to her anger, long after the triggering event had passed. She would carry her anger everywhere with her, much like a ball and chain around her ankle. For example, Sarah had blown up over a disagreement with her partner. In the days that followed, Sarah was preoccupied with thoughts about the argument and ideas about how things ‘should’ be different. Sarah took this rumination with her to work, yoga class, and to lunch with friends. As a result, she wasn’t fully present.
Sarah struggled at first when she tried to participate more fully in her life. However, with practice, she found times where she was fully present, effective, and enjoying the moment, free from her anger. Sarah was more productive at work, and she got more satisfaction from leisure activities. Of course, Sarah still experienced anger, but she learned ways to put it aside when needed so that she could freely participate in other aspects of life. In this way, Sarah achieved more balance, and anger ceased to be a defining feature of her life.